Bruce Perens wore a suit and tie for his linux.conf.au 2012 keynote for a
reason, he said: it reflects our community's need to think more about how
it appears to the rest of the world. Despite our many successes, he said,
we have failed to achieve the goals that our community set for itself many
years ago. We have failed to engage and educate our users, and are finding
ourselves pulled into an increasingly constrained world. To get out of
this mess, we will have to make some changes - and expand our scope beyond
software and culture.
The open source (he always used that term) movement's goal, he said, was
once to help a population that
increasingly does everything - from entertainment to finances and voting -
through computers. We wanted to enable people to do, not to be done
to. But we find ourselves in a world where people are increasingly slaves
to their tools. Yes, he said, tools like the iPhone empower their users,
but they also constrain those users. They are designed not to allow their
users to do things that might reduce the profits of their makers or of a
number of related industries.
Why is this important? It matters to anybody who likes democracy.
Almost all information is mediated through computers now - through
computers controlled by a very small number of large corporations. That is
a threat to democracy - and to freedom. But, he asked, why is it open
source's job to address this problem? The answer is that the open source
community is the only credible producer of software that is not bound to a
single company's interest. History has given us absolutely no reason to
believe that we can trust companies or governments to do that for us.
To be able to fill that role, we must continue to establish and defend our
right to write and distribute open source software. In other words, he
said, open source software should be legal. Things could be worse: we have
been very lucky with software patents, for example. Patents could have
been used to shut us down entirely by now; that has not happened - yet.
But, increasingly, we find ourselves shut out of access to content, which
does not help our cause.
There are also threats from new laws; increasingly, Bruce said,
general-purpose computing is seen as a threat. Anti-hacking laws threaten
the security of the net as a whole. SOPA-like laws threaten our tools and
our infrastructure. The advent of 3D printers is going to inspire a whole
new raft of laws as politicians figure out that they can be used to create
weapons or other things that they do not want us to have.
We are very much on the defensive in these battles; why, he asked, do we
have so much trouble being heard? The answer is that open source software
has not built a relationship with "the common person" and does not have
their sympathy. Instead, open source software has been co-opted and is
being used to control people; thus we end up with locked-down products like
the TiVo. We are, Bruce said, helping to make people into slaves of their
tools. A project he worked on - busybox - is now shipped as an important
component in any number of locked-down systems.
As an aside, Bruce said that, in retrospect, he should have continued to
lead the busybox project.
It comes down to the fact that open source has not been able to protect its
future through the
reform of hostile laws. That is a result of our failure to reach the
common man. We, as a community, have not achieved a sympathy for our users
in the way that companies like Apple have. Some specific projects have had
some success - he named Mozilla and Wikipedia - but, in general, our work
is not particularly accessible to - or visible to - most users.
In fact, he said, most of us do not really even like users; we are making
the software for ourselves. Demands from users who have not
contributed anything are just annoying. But, he said, we need to get over
that mindset; working only for ourselves is too limiting.
What about Ubuntu? It is, according to Bruce, demonstrating the necessary
discipline to reach users. But, unfortunately, Ubuntu has turned itself
into the intermediary between open source and its users; other open source
companies, such as Red Hat, have done the same thing. We need, he said, to
be more honest with ourselves about our partners. Commercial partners will
always put their own business interests above any other consideration - in
many countries, public companies are required to do that. They
cannot work for the best interests of open source software.
So, he asked, where did we go wrong? There was a period where we held a
moral high ground; that enabled political progress that we are not making
any more. As for-profit corporations took over the foreground, we lost
that high ground. Now we are just competitors, like any other. The
commercial intermediaries represent us now, but they represent us in their
own best interest. That is not surprising - it is what is expected of them
- but it shows why they are wrong for this role. We really only have one
tool for managing the behavior of these companies - copyright - and it is
not helpful in this situation.
In dealing with companies, Bruce said, we always need to keep track of
whether we are getting back something worthwhile for our efforts. Working
for free to enrich Mark Shuttleworth is not a smart thing to do. We need
to maintain a presence that is independent of organizations like Ubuntu.
Debian, he said, does the real work of making Ubuntu; Canonical just adds
the frosting. But does anybody in the wider world care about Debian at
this point? We are, he said, failing at self promotion. Yes, tooting our
own horn is tiresome, but if we don't do it, nobody else will do it for us.
Mobile apps are an especially big problem, he said. This is a commercial
paradigm that has succeeded; that means, in particular, that the web
failed. Now we are seeing open source software being sold as apps to
people who don't know that they are buying something they could have for
free. These apps, he said, duplicate every problem we have seen with
proprietary software, only worse because these apps are meant to be
ephemeral. We are going to have to find a way to change this paradigm,
Concluding this part of the talk, Bruce noted a strong trend away from
generic platforms, toward proprietary, locked-down platforms. In the end,
we will be left with nowhere to run free systems, and only jail
environments for applications. Open source software, he said, has achieved
tremendous things. But he is seeing signs that we have peaked; the
locked-down platform is beating us. If we cannot find a way to address
this problem, he said, it is our destiny to live in a constrained world.
There is a moment, far into Arlo Guthrie's epic "Alice's Restaurant," where
he is required to remind the audience that, contrary to what they may
think, they are listening to a song about Alice. Bruce's
talk was similar; it was billed as being about open hardware, but it was only
toward the end that he actually
got around to talking about that subject. It is clearly Bruce's hope that
a new revolution is building around open hardware, and that it may, in the
end, help to save us from locked-down platforms. There are a lot of
challenges in this area, he said, but he reminded the audience that the
open source community has done many things that people thought were
Once upon a time, he said, people working on open hardware might have been
seen as "isolated nutjobs." The good news is that, in the age of the
Internet, there are no more isolated nutjobs. No matter how nutty you may
be, there will always be fifty others like you on the net. In the open
source world, those people got together and created tools that others could
build on; things then took off from there. This history is, he said,
repeating itself with open hardware.
There is a new set of enabling factors that are driving open hardware. We
have the net, of course, but we also have the economic paradigms and
collaboration methods developed by the open source community. But the big
thing is that hardware is slowly being transformed into software; it can be
developed - and shared - in much the same way. 3D printers, increasingly,
let us print out solid objects that can be designed like software. Gate
arrays allow the immediate implementation of complicated digital logic - at
the level of a new CPU, for example. Throw in fast, cheap circuit board
manufacturing and there is a lot that can be done by just about anybody.
So what is happening with open hardware? For many, the flagship project is
certainly Arduino, which has found its
way into many or most open hardware
projects at this point. The boards can be cheap enough to (for example)
throw into the LCA swag bag. There are over 250 "shields" adding
interesting functionality; for any problem, there is likely to be a plugin
solution out there somewhere. It has a development environment that makes
it programmable by people like artists; as a result, Arduino is showing up
in a lot of art applications now. And the whole thing is surrounded by an
Arduino has some down sides. It does not use a 32-bit processor, so it
cannot run complex software (like Linux, for example). There are a lot of
alternatives out there, though, for those needing more power; the
Beagleboard and Pandaboard offerings for example. Bruce also called out
the Omap L138 processor
in particular, calling it a dream for mobile software-defined radio
applications. It has four CPUs, a lot of peripherals, and is quite
Bruce waved around a DSO Quad, a
pocket-sized digital storage oscilloscope. It is all open hardware and
software; it shows that one does not need a large corporation to create
compelling mobile products. Then, there is the Bus Pirate, a
general-purpose electronic hacking tool that can take on all kinds of tasks
from programming FPGAs to sniffing data transfers from an I2C bus.
Bruce also mentioned the Papilio gate
array development board. This device can become almost any kind of circuit
from a CPU emulator to a receiver for 20 simultaneous radio streams.
For those wanting more physical projects, there is the MakerBot, a plastic 3D printer.
MakerBot leaves a lot to be desired; in particular, Bruce said, it will
fall short until it has enough resolution to make high-quality Lego parts.
It will be able to make anything one might want eventually; for now it is
limited to "small, crappy-looking things." But it shows where things are
For the truly adventurous, there is OpenPCR, which allows genetic sequencing and
duplication at home.
The list could probably have gone on for a long time, but Bruce had made
his point - there is a lot happening in the open hardware area. There is
the potential for amazing things to happen. But much depends on the legal
climate, and it is clear that there are going to be legislative attacks on
open hardware. We will have to be attentive if this revolution is not to
be choked off before it can really begin.
[Your editor would like to thank the LCA organizers for
assisting with his travel to Ballarat.]
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